Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Sermon: "The Journey Begins"

June 27, 2010
“The Journey Begins”

Luke 9:51-62

On this first Sunday of the summer of 2010, I hope you’ve come prepared for an adventure.
For the next 8 weeks we’re going to be walking with Jesus on the road to Jerusalem.
I hope your bags are packed, your passport is up-to-date, and you’ve lathered on plenty of sunscreen.
With only a robe on our back and sandals on our feet we will spend every Sunday from now through August 15th walking the dusty roads of Palestine by day and laying our heads wherever we can at night.
Jesus has set his eyes on Jerusalem and called out “Follow Me!” to all who will listen.
And today, we will choose whether to answer that call.

From now through the end of October, the New Testament scripture readings that are a part of the Sunday lectionary follow Jesus’ Journey from Galilee to Jerusalem.
The Gospel of Luke devotes 10 chapters to this journey – from the end of chapter 9 to the middle of chapter 19.
In the next 8 weeks we will cover only a portion of this journey.
But in the time that we have left before Cindy returns at the end of August, I thought it would be fun to present the first half of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem in the form of good old-fashioned summer serial.
Not just to prod you to keep coming back week after week to find out what happens next, although that would be nice, but to also get us all thinking seriously about what it means to answer Jesus’ call.

We may liken this journey to traveling to Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia where for the price of an admissions ticket we’re give the opportunity to step back in time - tagging along after men and women dressed in period costumes, listening in on their conversations and seeing the world through their eyes. But instead of 18th century America, we will be traveling to 1st century Palestine.
And the admission is free.
Luke sets the stage for our journey in the opening verse of today’s scripture reading, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem.”

Now before we begin our journey there are a few things that we need know.
The journey to Jerusalem that Luke describes in chapters 9 through 19 is not presented in any particular chronological or geographical order.
In fact, if we plot the journey on a map it doesn’t seem to make much sense.
If we looked at a map of Palestine in New Testament times, we’d see Galilee to the north, Samaria in the middle, and Judea, where Jerusalem is located, to the south.
On the first leg of the journey Jesus travels from Galilee to Samaria, but in the very next chapter he is in Bethany, a city in Judea, which is located a few miles SOUTH of Jerusalem, in chapter 13 Jesus is back in Galilee where he started, in chapter 17 he is headed through Samaria once again, in chapter 18 he is in Jericho, a city in Judea that lies to the northeast of Jerusalem, and in chapter 19 he finally arrives in Jerusalem.

In modern terms, this would be like embarking on a journey from South Carolina to Orlando Florida, by traveling through Georgia, then driving past Orlando to Miami, then driving all the back up to South Carolina, back through Georgia, and then over to Daytona Beach on the east coat of Florida, before finally arriving in Orlando.

The point is - Luke’s presentation of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem is not a geographical or chronological journey.

Jesus sets his face towards Jerusalem, and ten chapters later that’s where he ends up.
But our focus is not on the destination but on the journey itself.
Often we learn more by zigzagging our way to our destination than we do by following a straight line from point A to point B. It’s often the unplanned side trips which take us miles out of our way that end up being the highlights of our journey.

It is in walking these dusty roads with Jesus that we learn how to be disciples.
He will guide us to wherever he thinks we need to go, to learn what we need to learn. Even if it means turning the car around and taking us all the way back to square one. We will get to Jerusalem when we’re ready to accept what is going to take place there - When we’re ready to speak the words, “I will follow you wherever you go,” and actually mean it.

In the scripture reading that begins our journey this morning, we encounter three newly minted disciples who shout out to Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go!” and we are standing right there with them. We are eager to please and we have no idea what it is we’re getting ourselves into. But before we even leave the comfort of our homes Jesus issues three warnings about the conditions that we will face along the way, and the level of commitment that is necessary to see it through to the end.

Warning #1:
Don’t expect to stay in four-star hotels, or even one-star dives in the sketchy part of town, because although the birds have nests, and the foxes have holes, the son of man has nowhere to lay his head. Like Jesus, the message we have to share about God’s inclusive love is not one that most people are willing to hear. We will have plenty of doors slammed in our face, and we will spend many a night sleeping in a ditch at the side of the road. This is not a life of power and fame that we are committing to, but rather one of destitution and rejection.

Warning #2:
Let the dead bury the dead, because as disciples of Jesus we are no longer walking among the dead. We have been resurrected and given new life. There is no time to waste tending to mundane tasks like burying the dead. People die every day, and there will always be someone else to bury. There will always be some other task that we must complete before committing to the road of discipleship. Let those who remain attached to their old lives stay behind and tend to the dead. We are called to preach the coming of the Kingdom of God to ensure that one day death itself will be no more.

Warning #3:
Do not put your hand to the plow and then look back, for those who turn away from their work end up plowing a crooked furrow. We must keep our eyes ahead and watch where we’re going. We must detach ourselves from whatever it is that we’ve left behind, as it is only a distraction: Our home, our family, the responsibilities and obligations that have kept us rooted in place. We must let go of all of them to be a true disciple of Christ.

Now after hearing these harsh warnings many of us may be inclined to respond like the three hopeful disciples, by saying “thanks but no thanks” and returning to our homes, our families and our obligations, while doing our best to be good Christians in our spare time.

After all, the requests that these potential disciples made of Jesus were not unreasonable.
They were willing to follow Jesus; they just needed to tie up a few loose ends at home first.
Didn’t Jesus preach about love and compassion? Shouldn’t he understand why one should be allowed to bury one’s father? Or say goodbye to one’s family?
Doesn’t God command us to honor our mother and our father?
Isn’t it selfish to walk away from those who love us to go on a religious quest that may result in our death?
What kind of person does such a thing?

I remember thinking the same thing recently, after reading a travelogue called “Worldwalk” written by American journalist Steven Newman.
In the mid 1980’s, Newman became the first person to walk around the world. In his book he documented what turned out to be a 4-year journey across the United States, Europe, northern Africa, southern Asia, and Australia.
Newman felt called to embark on his unprecedented walk because he had a desire to learn more about the world and the people whom he hoped to write about, but he also felt called to do the walk as spiritual journey.
While the book is a fascinating read, what troubled me about Newman’s decision to strike out on this journey is that his father was seriously ill at the time and was not expected to live the 3-4 years that the journey would take. And yet, on a cold April morning in 1983, Steven Newman strapped on his backpack said goodbye to his family and friends and walked away from his home. He looked back only once to notice the frail form of his father wiping away tears as he peered down at his son from an upstairs bedroom window.

Newman spoke of the pain and sadness that gripped his insides as he walked away. He knew that it was most likely the last time that he would see his father alive, and that his mother would be left alone to deal with her grief on her own. But he walked away all the same.
We may think that Newman’s decision to leave his family and walk around the world was based on purely selfish motives. If he was leaving home to follow some controversial religious guru we might judge him all the more harshly.

So what would be running through our minds if we were living in first century Palestine, standing with one foot on our family’s property and the other on the road to Jerusalem?
Before us stands a man named Jesus, a religious guru touting controversial beliefs, beliefs that will most likely get him killed. And yet there he stands looking us straight in the eye as he gestures to us saying, “Follow me.”

What would we do?
We’ve already watched him rebuke three men who had agreed to follow him, simply because they had other ideas about was expected of them as disciples.
Would he do the same to us if we turned away for just a minute to say goodbye to our families?
If we said we would catch up to him in the next town because we needed to take time to bury a loved one?
If we hesitated to respond because we didn’t like the idea of not having a warm bed to sleep in every night?

The cost of discipleship is something we hear a lot about in church.
But how many of us know what that means in modern terms?
If it was hard for those in first century Palestine to walk away from what little they had, how much harder is it for those of us living in 21st century America?
Are we expected to give up our homes, our families, and all of our worldly possessions to be true followers of Christ? Are we all supposed to live like Mother Theresa?

Many scholars believe that Jesus did not intend for his words to be taken literally in this text.
He was using hyperbole to make his point, as he did many times before. Jesus loved to teach using parables, an exaggerated form of storytelling that was intended to get peoples attention - To break them out of their rutted way of thinking, to help them to imagine a new way of living in the world and to focus their attention on what they needed to leave behind to better serve God.

Jesus’ objective in this text is not to tear his disciples away from their families, but rather to stress the importance of getting the word out about the coming of the Kingdom of God, and the role that we’re expected to play in bringing it about.
At this point Jesus had only 12 fully committed disciples, and if he could get some of the more casual followers to make the same commitment then he could get the word out that much faster.
But before accepting these casual observers into his fold he had to determine whether they were up for the challenge. Would they agree to walk with him and then choose to go AWOL because they didn’t like the living conditions, or they had an obligation to attend to back home, or they simply missed their families?

Jesus’ words may seem harsh, but if we were about to set out on a journey that would take us far from home through potentially hostile territory, wouldn’t we want to know ahead of time what we were getting ourselves into?
Admittedly committing oneself to following Jesus in 21st century America is much less fraught with danger then making the same commitment in 1st century Palestine.
Or is it?

Would you feel safe walking into a war zone with a sign that read, “Love your enemies as yourself?”
Would you feel justified interrupting an execution by saying “You have heard it said, an eye for an eye, but I tell you, we are called to practice forgiveness, not revenge?”
Would you be willing to not just serve up meals at Dorothy Day Hospitality House but to take it a step further by inviting a homeless person to stay in your guest bedroom, or your family room, or any of the other rooms we have in our homes that are primarily used to store our stuff?

These are harsh questions, and truthfully, most of us would struggle to answer yes to any of them. But when we consider Jesus’ teachings, this is what the cost of discipleship looks like in our time.

Whether we stand in 1st century Palestine or 21st century America, with one foot in our front yard and the other on the road to Jerusalem, the commitment that Jesus asks of us is the same.

I would suggest that we spend this week thinking about how far we are willing to go on this journey. Next Sunday we will place both feet on the road to Jerusalem, as Jesus commissions 70 of us to join him as disciples. It is then we will receive further instructions on what we should carry with us and how we are to react when we encounter hostility rather than hospitality.

And next Sunday, which is also the 4th of July, as we celebrate the birth of our country and the courage and commitment shown by both the earliest settlers and the waves of immigrants that followed, let us remember that every journey begins with the decision to take one step forward.

Jesus has called out to us with the words “Follow Me.”
Before we say yes to his call and continue on to the next leg of the journey, we should consider what it is we need to leave behind to ensure that our eyes remain set on the road to Jerusalem.


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